Monday, November 10, 2014

A short interview with Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz regarding their second collaborative effort, "A Most Imperfect Union"

Fourteen years ago, Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz had a surprise hit on their hands with Latino USA: A Cartoon History (Basic Books). It was a strange alchemy: Stavans is a prolific writer and editor not to mention the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst, while Alcaraz is the creator of the first nationally-syndicated, politically-themed Latino daily comic strip “La Cucaracha” that is syndicated in many newspapers including the Los Angeles Times. A strange alchemy, yes, but it worked judging by critical response as well as sales.

The Stavans/Alcaraz team is back with A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the United States (also published by Basic Books) and they have another hit. With raves from such respected voices as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Martín Espada, Gary Shteyngart and Noam Chomsky, this new illustrated history is a New York Times Best Seller, not to mention a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice.

A Most Imperfect Union is as edifying as it is entertaining—a must-read for those who have come to realize that what was taught in history class is not the whole story. Another triumph for Stavans and Alcaraz. 

The team agreed to answer a few questions about their latest joint venture.

DANIEL OLIVAS: This is the second time you’ve collaborated after the well-received Latino USA. Did you approach this book any differently?

ILAN STAVANS: With Latino USA, I learned two lessons: the first one is that collaborating with Lalo Alcaraz is lots of fun; the second is that he can drive me insane. So I approached A Most Imperfect Union with an altogether new ingredient: patience. And guess what? It worked… The endeavor took a while to be assembled: three years. But what is that in the span of a nation’s history? A burp! Readers seem to have liked that we took our time because they have put the book in The New York Times best seller list.

Ilan Stavans

LALO ALCARAZ: I had to switch to digital drawing, as the workload seemed bigger than previous projects with Ilan. If you knew how old school I vowed to keep my work, then you would understand how much this switch in mediums was revolutionary for my process. Otherwise I continued the same work methods as before, which is to physically avoid Ilan for the duration of the project. The guy drives me crazy!

Lalo Alcaraz

OLIVAS: What historical revelation do you think readers would find most surprising in this contrarian history of the United States?

STAVANS: To be a contrarian is to approach reality with a skeptical eye. People believe—foolishly—that the present is malleable, the future unknown, and the past unchangeable. False: the present is rather inflexible, since things happen in it rather tyrannically; the future is the only dimension where all things are possible since nothing has yet happened in it; and the past…well, the past is always changing because it depends on interpretation and interpretation is never static. Now to your question, Daniel: well, to be honest, I don’t like the word “revelation,” not in this context—it smells of religion. What I want readers to come away with in A Most Imperfect Union is doubt: that exceptionalism makes the United States superior; that this is a truly compassionate country; and that our society is made of individuals working together for a higher goal. Truth is, we’re Darwinian to the core. American society is cut-throat. ¡Sálvese quien pueda!

ALCARAZ: I don’t know about what the readers are going to learn about, but I am always amazed at how much more history there is to continue digging into every time Ilan and I do this book thing. Oh, and I always learn about legions of authors and bits of their personal histories because Ilan has a thing about “literature.” Who knew? But, en serio, this time around I was fascinated to learn about the stories of early slave authors. You don’t usually pick up info like that in many US history classes.

OLIVAS: Has A Most Imperfect Union been banned yet?

STAVANS: Yes, in my house. Ask Alison, my wife. Or better, don’t ask her! You’ll be better off.

ALCARAZ: Nah, but it should be banned from the List of Books that you have not bought!



Pasadena City College School of Humanities and Social Sciences Presents
A Reading by Author Susana Chávez-Silverman

WHEN: Monday, November 17, 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: Circadian, Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
COST: Free!

Susana Chávez-Silverman is a professor of romance languages and literatures at Pomona College in California. She is author of Killer Crónicas: Bilingual Memories and Scenes from la Cuenca de Los Angeles y otros Natural Disasters and co-editor of Tropicalizations: Transcultural Representations of Latinidad and Reading and Writing the Ambiente: Queer Sexualities in Latino, Latin American and Spanish Culture. She will be reading in Spanglish from her books.

For more information, please contact Pilar Ara at (626) 585-7435 or email

In case you missed it, KCRW’s Madeleine Brand interviewed me on her radio show, Press Play, about my most recent book,  Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature through Essays and Interviews (San Diego State University Press, 2014). You may listen to it here.

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